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What Are Filler Words? When You Should—And Shouldn’t—Avoid Them

You know, sometimes, like, we really really use some words too much, right? So, um, maybe we can, I don’t know, learn about filler words. Filler words definitely appear in, like, literally all of our sentences when we talk to our, you know, friends. So, I guess it is okay to, well, basically use filler words sometimes. … I mean, is it?

People often use filler words, many of which are featured above, without even thinking about it. A friendly conversation might even sound weird without a single “um” or a “well.” However, filler words have a bad reputation, and many people think they have no place in formal writing and speech. Why? Before we can answer that, we need to learn what filler words are and why people tend to use them so much.

Learn how filler words impact public speaking, and other dos and don’ts to follow.

What are filler words?

In general, the term filler words refers to short words or phrases that are used in speech or writing for reasons beyond what the words themselves mean, such as to create a pause or to indicate someone isn’t finished speaking. There are many other terms used to refer to these words and phrases, such as filled pauses, hesitation markers, discourse markers, vocal disfluencies, and crutch words. As these names might suggest, filler words are commonly used in public speaking, typically as associated with (or feared by) inexperienced speakers. (Read: most of us.) However, the term filler words is often used to also refer to popular overused adverbs, adjectives, phrases, and other parts of speech that don’t add anything (besides length) to a person’s writing.

Filler words in speech

Often, it is assumed that we only use filler words in speech due to nervousness, lack of eloquence, lack of preparation, or even laziness. However, filler words are a natural part of our speech and are widely used even by native speakers. Filler words have meaningful purposes, such as making a statement sound less impolitely blunt or to give a listener time to digest the information we have provided to them. Taking a more psychological approach, a listener might unconsciously use filler words to stall for time while they think of something to say or their brain processes what they heard.

Examples of filler words in speech

Here some examples of common filler words that sneak into our speech all of the time:

 

  • oh
  • um
  • uh
  • er
  • ah
  • like
  • well
  • so
  • right
  • literally
  • okay

Here is an example of a sentence that is … filled with filler words:

 

  • Well, I, um, was waiting at the, uh, bus stop for, like, literally five hours, right, before the bus came.

Example of filler words in writing

There are some filler words that are particularly common in writing. The following list gives a few examples, a couple of which you’ll recognize as being common in speech, too:

 

  • like
  • very
  • really
  • actually
  • basically
  • definitely
  • literally
  • just
  • totally
  • seriously

When to use filler words

In casual or informal speech and writing, the occasional use of filler words is common and sounds natural to most people. For many people, it would probably even sound odd to talk to someone who didn’t use any filler words at all. In fact, students are often taught filler words when learning a new language—not just English!—because using them will make someone sound more like a natural speaker.

But what about consciously choosing to use filler words? In speech, you might prefer to use a sentence with filler words as an alternative to awkward silences. Giving your sentences time to breathe with filler words will help a listener digest what you’re saying and give them time to think of their response. Younger people are more likely to use filler words, so a speaker may decide to use them to sound more relatable and connect better with a younger audience. In writing, filler words are often used to make dialogue sound more natural or to give an article a casual tone.

When and how to avoid filler words

In formal writing, speeches, and presentations, filler words are widely viewed as being completely unacceptable, unless used for rhetorical effect. There are many reasons for this, with some of the more commonly cited being that they make a speaker/writer sound unprepared, unprofessional, uninformed, or lacking in confidence.

It can be difficult to cut filler words from speech, especially since public speaking makes many people nervous. For this reason, it is a good idea to practice a speech ahead of time and try to memorize it completely. If that isn’t enough, you could record your own speeches and listen to them again to learn which filler words you tend to use.

In writing, most people tend to have certain adverbs that they overuse, such as very, really, and seriously. It’s often advised not to overuse words like these because it makes a piece of writing seem weaker or less effective than writing that instead uses stronger verbs and nouns. Most of the time, words like very, really, or seriously can be easily removed. If you don’t want to get rid of the adverbs completely, you can also use our fantastic thesaurus to find synonyms of your favorite adverbs to add some variety.

Refresh your writing with these extended tips on how to avoid overusing very.

You have another great tool you can use to fix up your writing: Grammar Coach™. Not only will Grammar Coach get rid of those pesky filler words, but it can handle all sorts of common writing missteps such as misspellings and punctuation problems!

Are you guilty of turning to these overused words? Learn which words are frequently used and what to try instead.

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